The sleazy streets of 1970s New York City have become a cinematic cliché at this point, standing in for so many shifts in social mores, sex, and the cityscape. HBO's The Deuce, created by David Simon (The Wire, Treme), explores how the era's commercial pornography boom changed this scene. Its hard-working and entrepreneurial heroes—James Franco as twin brothers, Maggie Gyllenhaal as independent streetwalker Candy, Dominique Fishback as the sweet and rapidly wising-up young sex worker Darlene—dared to craft a new way of making a living off meeting others' erotic needs while declaring their own worth.
Much in the show parallels more recent shifts in the sex trade brought about by the internet, and to the extent that The Deuce can mine this territory for dramatically compelling material while avoiding well-worn stereotypes, it shows potential. But to live up to its stylish and star-studded exterior, it will have to do better than a few nods to Gyllenhaal's feminist sex work philosophy and to pimps who slightly deviate from evil caricature.
The first few episodes don't quite get there. Like modern midtown Manhattan, The Deuce's version of '70s seediness seems a bit too sanitized to reveal what was really interesting about the way things used to be.